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Ottawa's spies are carrying guns in Afghanistan, a new practice for the clandestine civilian agents who are not authorized to bear arms inside Canada.

In response to Globe and Mail questions, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service confirmed for the first time that intelligence operatives can carry firearms in overseas hot spots.

That revelation shocks many long-time spy-service watchers, who say Parliament never contemplated this power. CSIS's request for firearms was never publicized or debated publicly.

The authorization is to use force as a last resort, and only when facing dire circumstances. No CSIS agent is yet known to have fired a bullet.

This development comes as CSIS, increasingly constrained within Canada, looks to expand its horizons abroad. In Afghanistan, it already claims to have disrupted terrorists and safeguarded soldiers.

"We have saved Canadian lives," CSIS director Dick Fadden told a parliamentary committee this month, testifying about Afghanistan. He did not reveal details.

Some federal agencies did air objections when the gun proposal was first pitched inside the bureaucracy about five years ago, according to one insider. "We said, 'No - no way! Canadian representatives abroad are not armed,' " recalled Dan Livermore, a retired diplomat.

Formerly a senior official with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Mr. Livermore said DFAIT was never at ease with agents carrying guns. Diplomats felt that CSIS spies, like DFAIT's envoys, were being adequately protected by soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.

He said CSIS agents get only a few weeks of training and restrict themselves to carrying handguns as side arms. But "you can't rely on amateurs," said Mr. Livermore, now a University of Ottawa professor. "Amateurs with guns are dangerous to everyone."

Isabelle Scott, a CSIS spokeswoman, insisted that spies dispatched to war zones get "extensive" training in firearms. She declined to specify what the training consists of or whether government bodies or private entities do the teaching.

One former government official, who asked not to be named, said CSIS agents have been fired upon in foreign conflict zones, though he does not know of CSIS ever firing back.

Agents have "put themselves in harm's way," the official said, adding that firearm policies have been reviewed thoroughly. He pointed out that more than 140 Canadians - mostly soldiers, but also one diplomat and one journalist - have died in Afghanistan.

"The evolution of the tradecraft and practise is determined by the threat environment," the official said.

Bullets are a last resort, Ms. Scott said. "The employee must make every reasonable effort to avoid confrontation whenever possible," she said, responding to Globe questions in an e-mail. "CSIS employees may be authorized by the director to carry a firearm in dangerous operational environments… Afghanistan has been defined as such an area."

She declined to say whether a public safety minister signed off on the power.

It's unclear whether CSIS agents have ever been permitted to carry guns outside Afghanistan.

A stay-at-home spy service when created in the 1980s as a civilian alternative to police spying, CSIS is hemmed in by domestic laws. Agents can tap phones and exercise search warrants in Canada, but they have no powers to shoot guns or make arrests.

Judges impose new constraints all the time, which CSIS publicly laments. Given all that, it's not surprising that the agency sees real growth potential in gathering more intelligence overseas - even if the risk is far greater.

CSIS works closely with Canadian police, diplomats and soldiers to keep tabs on security threats. Partnerships always persist, yet it's not uncommon for agencies to bicker about the spy service driving outside its lane.

For example, Mr. Livermore, the former DFAIT official, is a frequent critic of domestic spies laying claim to the wider world.

The new gun powers demonstrate that the spy service is run by "notorious escalators" who keep broadening their mandate, he said. "None of this is in the CSIS Act," said Mr. Livermore, referring to the law that created the spy service in 1984.

CSIS frequently boasts it is the most scrutinized spy service in the world. Yet it's not clear how much the powers of various watchdog bodies stop at the border.

"This cries out for SIRC investigation," said Ron Atkey, formerly chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

He said he was flabbergasted that CSIS agents now carry guns in foreign countries. Neither the guns nor even the trips were contemplated when he was the lead CSIS watchdog, from 1984 to 1989, when the agency was still in its infancy.

"It is so irregular in terms of what the CSIS function is," Mr. Atkey said. "They are an intelligence agency, they are not involved in military defence."

A SIRC official contacted by The Globe several weeks ago expressed surprise at the notion that CSIS might be carrying guns abroad.

Asked what would happen if a CSIS agent ever shot someone, the spokeswoman Ms. Scott said agents must adhere to various laws, policies and review mechanisms.

"Under the authority of the CSIS Act, CSIS'// activities are reviewed annually by the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG)," she wrote.

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